Doctor Who can be a pleasingly versatile thing when it wants to be. While this season has been a little run-of-the-mill so far, the format is due for a shake-up, starting with this imaginative two-parter that sees the Doctor become human in order to hide from a family of pursuing aliens.
These episodes may essentially revolve around the Doctor having to outwit aliens of the week in Earth’s history, but they also tackle broad themes of love, war, prejudice and many more, and do so with excellent writing and performances. As the Doctor’s anchor during his transformation, Martha’s role from the position of a humble servant is difficult but absolutely critical and she really comes into her own here. John Smith’s relationship with Joan as a human may be rushed, but it’s touching, and it’s heartbreaking to see the Doctor essentially having to give up a “normal” life and become a lonely wanderer again. We see the struggle he has to go through to give up a life that he realises isn’t his and we see Martha have to bury the feelings she feels she cannot have.
This is one of David Tennant’s best performances, with the Doctor and John Smith showing off his range as an actor. I think I actually preferred him as the ordinary school teacher, without all of that Time Lord wackiness and bravado. There are many dual roles in these episodes; one in particular that stands out is that of schoolboy Baines, whose snooty arrogance transforms into ice-cold menace as he is inhabited by a member of The Family. The crooked smile, the vacant stares and the calm voice are brilliantly performed. It’s also pleasant to see a historical episode where the period characters actually behave like they’re from another time. It is both gripping and infuriating to watch some of these scenes play out, with all the class and racial discrimination, all the pomp and ceremony, and training children to fight a war that nobody knows is coming. The theme of war feels a little surplus to the main story, but it’s another touching and well-written facet and concludes with a tear-jerker of an ending.
This story doesn’t deal with ultimate good or evil. The conclusion isn’t a moral victory, or scarcely a victory at all. The entire ordeal is torturous for the Doctor, the sort of thing that will affect him for the rest of his live(s), one would imagine. Was it right to create John Smith, only to destroy the possibility of his future, in order to become the Doctor again? And how many lives could have been saved if he’d never gone there in the first place? True, it’s a battle of survival and for the greater good of the Universe, but then the Doctor goes to rather excessive lengths to cruelly imprison the Family in the end, seemingly an act of cold-blooded revenge.
Although that raises the question of how threatening the Family was in the first place. They were going to chase him relentlessly through time and space, and yet the Doctor, once recovered, was able to waltz into their spaceship, press some buttons to blow it up and then systematically trap each of them in a personal hell. Could he not have done that in the first place without all of that painful genetic manipulation? And turning Baines into a scarecrow is hardly inconspicuous; somebody is bound to pull the sack off his head at some point, leading to all sorts of awkward questions. (Unless he put a perception filter around him, I guess.)
Despite some minor nitpicks, then, this is a really great example of the high standards the show can achieve. It’s the sort of thing that you might expect to not get made because “there’s not enough action” or “the kids will find it boring”. Thankfully, such nonsense didn’t stop it this time.